KENYAN students are increasingly interested in British universities as an escape from resource-starved local universities with their overworked lecturers and limited learning facilities.
They also want to avoid the intense competition for the 8,000 undergraduate places available each year in Kenya's five public universities.
Obtaining a degree or other professional qualification from Britain is regarded as a sure way of beating unemployment in Kenya, where graduate unemployment is high. Many employers favour degrees from British or western European universities over those from Sub-Saharan Africa, India or eastern Europe.
On average, 1,000 Kenyan students each year join British universities for undergraduate and postgraduate courses, but this number is expected to rise.
Thirty-two British higher education institutions took part in education fairs in Nairobi and Mombasa earlier this year.
Among them was the northern consortium comprising Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds Metropolitan, UMIST, Leeds, Manchester Metropolitan, Salford, Sheffield, Liverpool John Moores, Liverpool, and Bradford.
Others represented were London (External), Aston, East Anglia, Reading, Hull, Keele, Leicester, Middlesex, Birmingham, Brighton, Newcastle, Kent, Portsmouth, Luton, Nottingham and Warwick. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and Chartered Institute of Management Accountants sent delegates. Kent Institute of Art and Design and Loughborough College of Art and Design were also represented.
Many students and sponsors were interested in practically oriented undergraduate programmes although they felt fees were high for degrees in the professions. Colin Rogers, the team leader from Manchester Metropolitan University, said: "We received a good number of applications for engineering, computer science, architecture and medicine."
The master of business administration was the most popular postgraduate degree course. Other taught masters were also popular. Charles Maranga, a former senior lecturer at Kenyatta University, representing the University of Salford at the fair, said they were emerging as one of the strengths of British higher education.
The 12-month masters degree appeals strongly to Kenyan students who take between four and five years to complete a masters degree that should take two.
Frequent closures of universities and overworked academic supervisors lengthen academic programmes beyond the normal time. However, apart from postgraduate diploma courses, there are no taught masters degree programmes in any of Kenya's public universities.
Shem Wandiga, a former deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Nairobi now working at the International Institute for Education Planning in Paris, said that both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Kenya have been hampered by cuts in higher education spending. This has resulted in loss of staff, shortages of library books and inadequate teaching and research materials.
Kenya is also contending with the World Bank-prescribed limit on undergraduate admissions of 8,000 students a year. This is far below 1990, when public universities admitted a record number of 19,900 students, triggering a crisis of overcrowding.
Worried by unplanned expansion, the World Bank directed the Kenyan government to introduce cost sharing, give loans to students and restrict enrolment to under 10,000 a year until the end of the decade.
The measures have introduced stiff competition for admission. For 1998-99 local universities will admit 8,046 students out of 24,196 who have qualified. Vice-chancellors have told those not admitted to seek alternative places in foreign and private universities.
Obtaining a British university education is an uphill struggle for many Kenyans. In 1990 Kenya abolished A levels, introducing a system of eight years in primary education, four in secondary and a further four in university.
To attend British universities, Kenyan students have to study for A levels locally after passing the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education. Some take pre-university courses in Britain or the international baccalaureate.
The northern universities consortium has entered an agreement with Braeburn High School, an international school in Nairobi, to offer pre-university foundation courses. Students select four modules from communication skills, information technology, pure maths, applied maths and physics. Chemistry, biology, economics, sociology and politics are also offered.
The consortium sets the syllabus and retains a permanent representative at the school. It also appoints external examiners and approves all the examinations and determines the final grades.